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Since the phenomenal $820 million international success of the first Spider-Man movie, the filmmakers have gone back to the drawing board to improve on their technical shortcomings and, more importantly, generate a top-notch script by screenwriter Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People").
The glorious result is a careful blend of subtext rich characters responding to one another and their surroundings in a colorful action movie embellished with musical grace notes from West Side Story, thanks to Danny Elfman’s subtle score.
Tobey Maguire again inhabits the role of the emotionally conflicted, web-slinging crime fighter, with Kirsten Dunst returning to her role as Peter Parker’s thespian love interest, Mary Jane Watson. There are plenty of surprises in this entertaining Hollywood cartoon-inspired movie that tops everything else in the genre.
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) has become a more assured and patient director since he made the first Spider-Man movie. It’s a shift toward maturity that’s reflected in returning cast members Maguire, Dunst, and James Franco. Where the young actors had everything to prove in the first movie, they now have a confident handle on their characters’ personal objectives and outward goals.
Maguire’s Peter Parker spends much of Spider-Man 2 looking askance at his alter ego, and takes a hiatus from wall-crawling long enough to boost his college grades and sit in the audience for Mary Jane’s telling performance in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The movie opens with an impoverished Peter Parker struggling to deliver time-limited pizzas around Manhattan on his aged moped. But even when Parker tries to use his Spidey powers to speed things along, he has to take time out to save a couple of children from being run over by a truck.
The computer-aided scenes of Spider-Man swinging from Manhattan high-rises are vastly improved since his last theatrical outing, and audiences will take special joy in the flawless acrobatics on display. The filmmakers make an obvious joke later in the movie about damage to Maguire’s back that threatened to table him from participating in the sequel. Spidey takes some pretty big falls.
Peter Parker’s college grades are suffering when he chooses to do a thesis paper on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, Frida), a genius scientist working on a source of perpetual energy through sustained fusion, thanks to funding from Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father Spider-Man killed in the first movie. Osborn has since become consumed with capturing the web-crawling vigilante, to the point of becoming an alcoholic.
Spidey gets another enemy when Doc Ock’s exhibition of his new machine backfires, and the scientist is left with four enormous steel tentacles permanently attached to his spine — hence the name Dr. Octopus.
Peter Parker and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) are interrupted during a visit to a bank for a loan when Doc Ock arrives to rob the place. The ensuing battle finds Aunt May in Doc Ock’s grip atop the tall building with Spider-Man battling gravity as he fearlessly fights the evil doctor to save his cherished aunt. The sequence is remarkable for its guiding elements of humor and pathos amid all of the eye-candy action.
A nagging question in the film arises from a problem Parker has with producing webbing. Spider-Man comes up short in the web department on several occasions, and even goes to a doctor about his waning supply of the sticky stuff. The question is never completely explained, and while it gives the character one more flaw for audiences to trouble over, it sits as unfinished business.
Nonetheless, the movie offers plenty of fantastic spectacles — see Spider-Man stop a speeding subway train — and more than a few subtle comic references. Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell does a cool stint as a bothersome theater usher, and Willem Dafoe makes a witty appearance as the ghost of his former self.
Even the budding romance between Peter and Mary Jane is handled with an eye toward the absurd. Spider-Man tells Mary Jane, as he protects her from a falling steel wall, “it’s heavy.” Indeed, there’s plenty of irony, surprises and cheeky fun in store in this satisfying sequel.
Rated PG-13. 127 mins.